Spitalfields Festival is 40


This summer’s Spitalfields Music Festival has just been and gone for the fortieth year, having been founded in 1976. As a former artistic director and trustee, and now an enthusiastic audience member, I took a maternal pride in spotting these eye catching pink-orange signs while prowling around London’s East End in the last fortnight (any resemblance with Jack the Ripper is purely coincidental) searching for the ‘unexpected places’ where the music was about to take place.

This one (pictured) was on Mile End Road, at Stepney Green. I was about to enter, for the first time, Queen Mary College, and visit the charming Octagon, originally the College library, built in the 1880s. The spacious dome ensured a generous acoustic, shall we say, for a concert by the Schubert Ensemble, but a strongly-shaped, forthrightly delivered new work by Cheryl Frances-Hoad, The Whole Earth Dances, was more than a match for the resonant surroundings. Once more I felt a surge of pride when violinist Simon Blendis congratulated the Festival for commissioning yet another new work ‘in this day and age’, this being, he thought, the fifth time Spitalfields had presented a new commission for the Schuberts over the years.

In a busy fortnight elsewhere, I visited two other Spitalfields performances. Purcell’s King Arthur, re-imagined by Peter Wiegold and Martin Butler for Club Inegales was a riot, including a hyperactive snow machine, Chinese traditional musicians, a zither, personal appearances by playwright John Dryden and witty commentary from Murray Lachlan Young; and dare I say, closer to the spirit of Purcell and Dryden's nutty opera than some of the po-faced early performances we used to hear on the new music scene in earlier years. And, in the opening Festival days, it was a heartwarming pleasure to have the admirable BBC Symphony Chorus centre stage in a vocal recital – not something you often see. A highlight was Judith Bingham’s half-hour work The Secret Garden, based both on myths about the Garden of Eden and David Attenborough’s The Private Life of Plants. After forty years, the Festival is in rip-roaring form.

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JUDITH WEIR

Composer